This is the first part of a two-part series. Read Part 2 here.

 

In just a few years, they grow from being lovable angels into little monsters.

Isn’t this an apt description of many teenagers? Many parents tell me that they find their teenagers hard to manage; it’s something I can relate to well, as a father of three myself.

While my kids have since grown up, I can remember how parenting them in their teens was a huge challenge for my wife and me.

We need to remember, however, that our kids don’t intentionally want to make life difficult for us. Going through this painful season of adolescence is something that is unavoidable for them; it’s a rite of passage in their journey to adulthood. The growth taking place at this stage of their lives—emotionally, spiritually, physically—is inevitable as they become men and women of God.

This, unfortunately, makes our job as parents extremely challenging during those years. For some of us, it will stretch us to the very limit. We can no longer treat our teenage children like before, because they are no longer young children; at the same time, they still need our care, guidance, and discipline.

What we need to do, is to start with a complete shift in how we see and parent teenagers. Over the years, I’ve learnt 10 mistakes in parenting teenagers, many of which I made—and which I hope you won’t have to.

 

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1. Not Admitting When We’re Wrong

As parents, we need to get used to our children exposing us when we’re wrong. I’ve got three “detectives” at home, and they’re always watching me to catch me in the wrong. For example, when I forget to switch off the lights at home, when we arrive at church late . . . all the things that I always tell my kids not to do.

No parent is perfect; all of us will make mistakes in the sight of our children. But if we’re caught making a mistake, we can learn to acknowledge them by saying these three “magic phrases”:

  1. “I’m sorry”
  2. “I’m wrong”
  3. “Please forgive me”

These are simple words, but they have great power. Our kids need to see us make and acknowledge our mistakes, in order to learn the value of confession, humility, and forgiveness.

This is in line with the biblical approach towards failure and forgiveness. The principle of 1 John 1:9—“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”—highlights the reality of our weakness, the need to admit and confess our wrongdoing, and the power of forgiveness.

Our kids need to see us make and acknowledge our mistakes, in order to learn the value of confession, humility, and forgiveness.

As a former school disciplinary master, I’ve caught many students being rude and defiant to their teachers. Even though I assure them that the case will be closed if they apologise, most refuse to do so. When I call their parents and ask if they themselves apologise at home, they say they never do.

If we parents have the courage to confess to our children when we make mistakes, they will learn this good and godly habit from us.

2. Not Being Consistent

Inconsistency is a consistent problem with many of us parents.

A father once gave a long, eloquent prayer of thanks over breakfast. After the chimes of “amen” and the family began tucking into the meal, he started complaining that the coffee was too bitter, the toast too burnt, and the jam too sweet.

His son asked: “Dad, do you think God will take your prayer seriously, or your complaint more seriously?”

Many of us may have been caught in a similar situation, when we preach one thing but practise something else. Our kids are smart and sharp enough to notice our inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

We need to be prepared to take the feedback of our kids or spouse when they expose our inconsistencies, and work at being a consistent parent and person.

Jesus often had strong words for those who were hypocritical. At the same time, He espoused the importance of leading by example. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you,” He told His disciples in John 13:15. Paul, too, called on the elders in the church and community to lead exemplary godly lives, saying, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good” (Titus 2:7, see also Titus 1:6–9).

We need to be prepared to take the feedback of our kids or spouse when they expose our inconsistencies, and work at being a consistent parent and person.

3. Not Giving Honest Answers to Honest Questions

There will be times when our teenage children will challenge us with honest questions that are difficult to answer. Like: “Why did you get so angry? Why didn’t you keep your promise? What does the book of Revelation mean?”

In such awkward situations, some of us may change the topic, keep silent, or bluff our way through. But our kids are smart, and can tell when we don’t want to answer their questions—or don’t know how to.

What we need to do is to try our best to answer their questions as honestly and earnestly as we can. And if we don’t know the answer, we can tell them honestly, “I don’t know. But I will try to find out.”

When we make efforts to provide our children with honest answers, we’re sharpening their thinking, reasoning, and analytical skills.

This can be challenging for us because things were different when we were young. Then, our parents would probably tell us to keep quiet, because they didn’t see a need to answer our honest questions.

But when we make efforts to provide our children with honest answers, we’re sharpening their thinking, reasoning, and analytical skills. And when we engage them in this way, we’re also protecting them—because they’re learning from us.

Not only that, we are also reflecting and teaching them the biblical principle of consistent honesty—not just in the big things, but also in the little things, right down to the words we speak. As Proverbs 24:26 observes, “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.”

When our kids ask honest questions, they deserve an honest answer.

4. Not Differentiating Between Critical and Trivial Issues

Many of us sometimes overreact to the small things that our children do wrong. But we need to discern what we should address, and what we can leave alone.

A couple who was very much into healthy eating once came to me for advice over their son’s eating habits—he enjoyed chicken wings and soda. While I understood their concern over his health, I suggested that they keep their swords sheathed, and to wield them only for critical battles.

We can ask the Lord for wisdom to differentiate between what’s critical and trivial.

For example, critical issues are those linked to our children’s character and moral values, such as lying, cheating, abusing drugs, rejecting the faith, or bringing a peer from the opposite sex to their room and closing the door.

On the other hand, trivial issues might be related to their hairstyle preference, eating habits, personal hygiene, or leisure time.

If we only take out our “swords” for the big battles, hopefully they’ll see that we are addressing something serious, and will take what we’re saying more seriously, too.

Let’s pick our battles wisely. If we take our children to task over every single issue, they may not listen to us when a truly critical issue crops up, because they’ll see it as yet another example of us nagging at them.

But if we only take out our “swords” for the big battles, hopefully they’ll see that we are addressing something serious, and will take what we’re saying more seriously, too.

Jesus himself showed an ability to zoom in on the things that really mattered in life—like salvation and seeking God’s kingdom (Luke 12:22–31). “Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes (v. 23),” He observed, demonstrating the need to focus on what’s critical, and trusting God to take care of the rest.

Ultimately, effective parenting is about picking our battles.

5. Not Showing Our Approval and Acceptance

Many of us tend to be quick in jumping onto our children when they fail to make the mark. We tend to focus on their not-so-good side, their flaws and bad habits, and to criticise and nag.

On the other hand, we tend to be slower to affirm them, to appreciate their strengths and abilities, and to praise them when they do well.

Our children can easily sense our approval or disapproval, even when we don’t speak—our body language and facial expressions are difficult to hide.

Studies have shown that when kids seldom receive praise from their parents, they tend to grow up insecure and critical of others.

Studies have shown that when kids seldom receive praise from their parents, they tend to grow up insecure and critical of others. On the other hand, affirmation and encouragement builds security and confidence, and gives them an assurance that they are loved and appreciated.

The Bible reminds us on several occasions to encourage and affirm fellow believers—which would include our children. Rather than putting others down and discouraging them, we are to “encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

And, encouraging and affirming our kids does not mean simply flattering them or giving them empty praise, especially for something they didn’t earn, like how they look. We can give them an affirmation when they do something commendable. Look for little day-to-day tasks and duties they’ve done, and affirm them for it.

 

Read Part 2 of this two-part series on mistakes to avoid in parenting teens here.

 

Gn Chiang Tat is a counsellor at Singapore Youth for Christ.
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